Dissonant Notes

Friday, May 9, 2014

Flogging a Dead Force: The Terrible, Joyless Supercult of ‘Star Wars’

When I was young I loved the Star Wars trilogy. I watched the films, I bought the toys, and I froze that Han Solo action figure more times than I care to remember. I would bring my toys over to friends’ houses so we could combine our collections and enact scenes in a more accurate manner. It was all terribly innocent and fun. By the time I was thirteen I probably hadn’t thought of Star Wars for a while. Other things were soon to preoccupy me, things like hormones, orgasms, leaving school, drinking alcohol, finding a job, moving out of my parents house, and various other aspects of growing up. I was 23 years old when The Phantom Menace came out, and I remember being excited. Really excited. Upon leaving the theatre I had a thought that I could barely admit to myself, that thought being “What a load of shit that film was”. Despite my crushing disappointment, I went to see both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, mindlessly handing over my money knowing full well that I would be both disappointed and angry. Here were three of the worst films ever created, and I and thousands like me had made them unbelievably profitable out of some pathetic loyalty to a tarnished brand. At this point I thought Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon was finished. Who could maintain their excitement after being insulted three times over and being charged for the privilege? It turns out that a lot of people could. As the years have gone by the supercult of Star Wars has only grown, and in 2015 there is to be a seventh movie. How did we get here? Why are we still celebrating what should have been a passing cultural moment for a particular generation? The reasons are all ugly, and it’s apparent that many people my age and younger need to take a good, hard look in the mirror and see just what kind of easily pleased, overgrown children they have become . To discover where things started to go wrong, let’s go back to a time when Star Wars was just a successful movie trilogy, and not a smothering cultural albatross.

At the start of 1994, it was still possible to have a conversation about Star Wars without feeling self-consciously hyper-aware of its relevance. That is if you felt like having a conversation about Star Wars at all. It retained a certain cult following among comic book and sci-fi fans but, other than that, it was a pleasant memory, albeit one rarely revisited. Then Kevin Smith happened. Smith’s low-budget debut Clerks made Star Wars culturally relevant again in America by making it the property of dude-bro, apathetic, ironic stoners. The idea of people discussing the morals of killing Death Star contractors seemed to strike many people as hilarious and soon everyone wanted in on the action . Suddenly dude-bros everywhere were declaring that Star Wars was awesome. Something began to creep into pop culture. Discussing Star Wars took on a self-conscious tone, as people took pleasure in over-inflating its importance while denying that any such over-inflating was happening. Star Wars was awesome, dude. Smith struck gold by capturing the first instances of another cultural phenomenon: the rise of the nerd! This nerd wasn’t an ex-member of their high school chess club, though, and they didn’t know how to build a computer. They merely liked comic books, sci-fi/fantasy and, by extension, Star Wars. It wasn’t nerdy in a way that required brainpower. Quite the opposite, in fact. This was everydude geekdom, the revenge of the stoner who listened to metal and watched horror movies. Slayer were awesome, The Evil Dead was awesome, and so was The Empire Strikes Back. Soon enough the Star Wars revival began to gain more tread and it wasn’t long before this revival was turned into profit. In doing so it turned a pleasant childhood memory into a steroid-pumped corporate licence to print money. 

It would be a mistake to lay all the blame on Kevin Smith. Smith himself was a product of a particular time and place, and his movies merely greased the wheels. The nineties saw the emergence of the ironic persona, that hyper-aware personality trait adopted by millions of American teenagers. The ironic persona reveled in trash culture, gaudy sunglasses, and anti-hipness. The anti-hipness is an important and often forgotten element of nineties culture. The ironic persona preferred looking like an uncool goofball than somebody who, like, cared, man! The forces of ironic uncool and dude-bro nerdiness first synthesised in the nineties, and Star Wars was the main benefactor. Which is not to say that Star Wars was trash, but it was a childhood artifact filled with monsters and quotable lines. It was uncool/cool. The fact that both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back were well-made movies that many children had deeply loved sealed the deal and gave the whole thing an air of respectability. Whereas something like Tron didn’t truly stand the test of time (its eventual sequel was one of the many nadirs for this narcissistic, childhood-obsessed generation), the first two Star Wars movies were perfectly executed, exciting, and memorable. (Return of the Jedi in comparison barely survives the glow of childhood memories and its leaden acting and lazy plot are the first signs of rot in the franchise). 

As the influence of American ‘alternative’ culture seeped into Britain, Star Wars conversations on both sides of the Atlantic shared the same self-conscious air. In place of innocent enjoyment, there were bug-eyed, mannered declarations of love. All of a sudden Star Wars became unbearably meaningful as everybody forgot that, for many years, the trilogy was barely discussed. Overnight, it was as if Star Wars had always held sway over the hearts of everyone, all the time, and people could barely contain themselves. The franchise made the all important leap from merely being a loved cultural artifact to being an untouchable, sublimated product. When discussing Star Wars, people were not merely discussing the movie, they were saying something about themselves. Communication existed beyond words. Star Wars enabled people to consume their own gestures, to feel a glow simply by invoking its holy name. In one glorious instant, childhood, product, and persona merged triumphantly into a fetishised singularity. Thus was born the unthinking, commodity-hungry über-nerd.

Before the disastrous prequels, each of the original movies was revamped as a ‘Special Edition’ and re-released into theatres. The results were awful. Instead of merely touching up the colour and sound, original producer and owner of the franchise George Lucas made huge changes which included new scenes with additional dialogue. The additions added nothing and were generally looked upon as pointless and even harmful. Despite this faux pas, nothing could quell the excitement for The Phantom Menace which came out in 1999. The movie exceeded all expectations in terms of how dreadful it was. Completely lacking in memorable action or dialogue, it was dull, flat, and worthless. The follow-ups were no better, and some of the dialogue was excruciating (“ Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo; so long ago when there was nothing but our love.”). Would it surprise you to learn then that The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith are all sitting comfortably in the top 100 highest grossing movies of all time? Sorry to get all Kanye West here, but OF ALL TIME!!! How could this happen that these terrible movies are amongst the most successful ever made? The reason is simple: when it comes to Star Wars, it simply does not matter if the product is good or bad. All that matters is that it has the name Star Wars attached. The unthinking devotion of the Star Wars fan means that considerations such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are unimportant. All that matters is that new Star Wars product is available.

The Star Wars revival also helped usher in the great cultural regression back to childish pleasures, under the suddenly acceptable guise of nerdiness. Before the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, before the endless onslaught of comic book/superhero adaptations, before Harry Potter, there was Star Wars. The reemergence of Star Wars fandom that occurred in the late nineties allowed for the creation of a great monolith of taste. This monolith demanded familiarity and an absence of psychological depth. Since 2000 there have been seven X-Men movies and since 2002 there have been five Spider-Man movies. We have Transformers. We have Iron Man. We also have reboots, that awful word that has its origin in computing, designed to make nerds feel a warm inner glow about watching a variation on the same thing again and again. In case anybody thinks I’m exaggerating, assuming things like Star Trek and Batman have always been loved, the difference in terms of monetary reward between now and then is staggering. The two recent Star Trek reboots are the most financially successful Star Trek movies ever made by some margin, and The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises have made more money than every other Batman movie combined. The Superman reboot seems to be the only franchise which has not outstripped its predecessors, but both movies still scored huge at the box office. The Spider-Man franchise has already had time for a reboot. Nobody seems to mind.

So, now we have a huge block of people who will pay money to see anything comic book/childhood-related. Throw in the amount of adults enjoying Young Adult novels and movies, and it appears this grand fetishisation of childhood paraphernalia is now the defining cultural phenomenon of the new millennium. All of these movies seem to share a humourless, po-faced seriousness, with characters wrestling with their ‘destiny’. Psychological depth is provided by the most superficial of moral dilemmas. What must a character do to fulfill their destiny? Does doing good also involve hurting people? Spaceships with moral dilemmas. Superheroes with moral dilemmas. As British writer and TV presenter Charlie Brooker explained:

“Calling Batman ‘the Dark Knight’ is like calling Papa Smurf ‘the Blue Patriarch’: you're not fooling anyone. It's a children's story about a billionaire who dresses up as a bat to punch criminals on the nose.”

What is apparent is that these self-proclaimed nerds are the least discerning movie fans in the history of cinema. Even Rocky fans got bored by the third installment. The connecting of the word “nerd” with comic books, and superheroes, and even books like Harry Potter, gives a false indication of intellect. This is unfortunate given that these movies are completely free from intellectual content. They are big-budget children’s stories appealing to, at this point, generations of people who see no need to develop emotionally and who demand familiarity and predictability at every turn.

A particularly off-putting aspect of this now ubiquitous nerd culture is the overwhelming misogyny. Women in comic books and sci-fi/fantasy are generally presented as hyper-attractive, perfectly constructed goddesses whose breasts can barely be contained. The moment a woman actually chooses to dress like that in real life, however, is the moment when she will be cast out of the nerd club. Memes, internet comments, websites, and even comic book artists mock attractive women who dare define themselves as nerds. No, only men know what nerd women look like. These pathetic, insecure men feel threatened by the involvement of women, especially attractive ones who *gasp* may dress in ways that enhance their attractiveness. The nerd credentials of men are never called into question, only those of women. Then there is the outcry whenever a non-white cast member is included in a fantasy/young adult/sci-fi movie. Accusations are made of PC pandering, of being ahistorical, or of altering the comic-book canon. Just ask Idris Elba about when he was cast in Thor. I mean, obviously it’s quite alright for everybody in a Nordic-based movie to speak English, but if you include a black guy, that’s just wrong. Time and again the inclusion of a non-white cast member creates controversy, and nastiness ensues. Outside of the Tea Party, it’s hard to think of another group of people who indulge in misogyny and racism so freely as comic book/fantasy nerds.

There is a general feeling that has existed in pop culture these past few years, that feeling being that the nerds have won. What has this victory given us? A stunted emotional outlook. A demand for familiarity (11 of the 12 highest-grossing movies of the 2010’s are sequels, Young Adult adaptations, comic book adaptations, or reboots). A demand for predictability. Very public displays of racism and misogyny. The budgets and profit margins of these films are astronomical but, outside of perhaps the Nolan Batman movies, it is a fact that none of these creations will survive the most basic of critical scrutiny from upcoming generations, and future landfills overflowing with unwanted DVDs will testify to their general worth. So you can add accelerated environmental destruction to the list of nerdish victory spoils (the only thing they like recycling is ideas and plot lines). With all this in mind, what can we expect from the next Star Wars movie helmed by J. J. Abrams? The answer is: it doesn’t matter. It will not be great in any objective sense. At best it will be a functionally pleasant way to waste two hours. In reality, though, it will make money no matter what. It will fulfill its purpose and, in doing so, it will inspire endless internet chit-chat and another round of overused references as people old enough to know better bring themselves to one more dry, joyless Star Wars-derived orgasm. There will be countless empty, redundant gestures of approval, along with impotent anger and bickering over horrifyingly inconsequential aspects of the movie that will help to reinforce some misguided idea of nerdiness. It will be hideous.

If you are in your mid 20s or older, I have news for you: your childhood is well and truly over. It’s actually been over for a while, but I wanted to give as much leeway as possible. Time to grow up. (Honestly, if you went to see that Tron sequel you should be fucking ashamed of yourself). Let other people be young now. You squeezed every last piece of joy out of your pre-adult years but still you want more. You want more representations from your childhood reproduced over and over and over again, in ever more expensive and charmless tributes to a collective unwillingness to grow. The last good thing from the Star Wars franchise came out in 1980. That was 34 years ago. Time to move on. Time for new ideas. We are rats pushing buttons looking for that same reward time and again, but we are being handed dust and shit. At this point Star Wars is a smothering, over-familiar cultural high-five that exists on some barren field of existence where cerebral activity is banished. It needs to die. It won’t, though. It will thrive and bring profit which is the only thing that really matters. The Hollywood studios found a way to turn the public into an unlimited cash machine and they are in no mood to change course. The magic that many felt upon watching Star Wars for the first time has been transformed into a repulsive monster that will not give up. What childhood representations will coming generations want to see on the big screen? The same as the Star Wars generation (those born between around 1965 and 1990), whose narcissistic refusal to grow up has condemned future generations to watch the exact same images revamped and only slightly rewritten. No new images have been allowed to come into existence. French philosopher Camus famously said “A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened”. For those of us immersed in Western culture, that work is complete. Those images are the comic book superhero, the wizard, and the spaceship. Safe from the whims of taste, we can watch another Star Wars movie, switch off our minds and merely exist and consume. I can’t help but think that our childhood selves hoped for a somewhat better future than this.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Some Random Thoughts On ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ And Paul Simon In General

I have of late, but why I know not, become obsessed with the song ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ by Paul Simon. Where did this obsession come from? I have no idea. I heard the song randomly one day and, although it was a song I was already familiar with, for some reason it managed to take up residence permanently in my brain. Something about the chord progression and the melody tinged with melancholy made me want to listen. And listen. And listen. At some point, it struck me that the lyrics were not as straightforward as they seemed. The more I listened the more I became convinced that the words were not only brilliant but also quietly devastating. Was this the darkest and most misunderstood song ever written? Something tells me you aren’t convinced. Let’s go through this carefully so I can make my case.

I met my old lover
On the street last night
She seemed so glad to see me
I just smiled
And we talked about some old times
And we drank ourselves some beers
Still crazy after all these years

Pretty simple. Two old lovers meet. They share some laughs and discover that they’re still crazy about one another. Except that’s not the case. As we will soon see, the song’s narrator is referring to himself alone and he doesn’t seem the least bit interested in love. So if it’s not about love, then what is going on? The situation being described is not crazy. Not in the least. Will the next verse give us a clue?

I’m not the kind of man
Who tends to socialize
I seem to lean on
Old familiar ways
And I ain’t no fool for love songs
That whisper in my ears
Still crazy after all these years

Spot any craziness in these lines? Yeah, me neither. This appears to be the opposite of crazy. It’s mundane. Why would somebody describe their encounters with normal everyday situations and then call themselves crazy? Why indeed. They’d have to be delusional. What if the narrator of the song were fooling themselves? What if they were so incapable of action, of taking any steps to improve his life, that they had sunk into an emotional morass. What if their cynicism and disdain for vulnerable situations had led them to a life of nothingness, yet somehow they still imagine they are something of a character? Their mundanity has led them to re-imagine their weaknesses as virtues, thinking of themselves as an eccentric as opposed to an emotionally paralyzed misanthropist. Yet from time to time, the veneer crumbles.

Four in the morning
Crapped out, yawning
Longing my life away
I’ll never worry
Why should I?
It’s all gonna fade

Middle of the night. Can’t sleep (again). An admission. A sign of vulnerability. Here is a person gazing at life longingly, wishing they could act to free themselves from their self-imposed exile. Then in a blink it’s gone. No need to worry, we’ll all be dead one day. Cynicism emerges triumphant.

Now I sit by my window
And I watch the cars
I fear I’ll do some damage
One fine day
But I would not be convicted
By a jury of my peers
Still crazy after all these years

Life goes on. The narrator continues to be a spectator. One day they’ll show everyone. One day they’ll make a real impact. Yeah, still the same old crazy guy, slowly dying. If my interpretation of the song is correct then it truly is one of the most spirit crushingly sad songs ever penned. Not in an obvious way. Not in a way that draws attention to itself. The melody carries you away from the sadness and replaces it with a wistful melancholy that could be mistaken for a love song. Don’t be fooled though, there’s darkness under the veil.

I begin to ponder why Paul Simon has been denied a place amongst the most elite and revered North American songwriters. Dylan and Young are seen as authentic because they have denied their middle-class roots and have embraced some fantasy persona of a down-home, tell it like it is character who rails against the modern age. Simon is shown less love because he doesn’t shy away from his middle-class roots. Indeed he embraces them. Since the vast majority of middle-class music fans live in denial of their upbringing and instead foster some vaguely anti-materialistic, anti-intellectual approach to life and art then Paul Simon is more a reminder than an escape. Musically, Simon has explored reggae, Afro-pop, jazz, electronica and modern classical to name some of the more obvious examples, while Dylan and Young have remained defiantly conservative in their approach, not counting Young’s cack-handed attempt at electronics. So he has a lite-jazz saxophone solo? Well David Bowie used David Sanborn on Young Americans, and nobody seems to mind Destroyer’s saxophone solos.

Don’t get me wrong, Simon has his fans among the post-Garden State/wistful indie dreamers brigade and among the writers of adult-orientated rock publications, but he deserves better than that. His lyricism is subtler than most give him credit for but his thoughtfulness comes across as grown-up and not rock‘n’roll. Not earthy. Joni Mitchell has suffered critically for a lot of the same reasons, while her excursions into jazz-pop still give many the shivers. He is lambasted for his pretensions while Dylan and Young are forgiven for their banalities. Apparently it’s better to be consistently trite than occasionally falter under the weight of your artistic vanity.

The beauty of song interpretations is that you can be wrong. Maybe I’m projecting here. Maybe I’ve just reached that point in my late 30s where I perceive the icy hand of mortality on my shoulder and I feel my youthful enthusiasm wane and in response I reach out for those Paul Simon albums to comfort me in my unstoppable decline and as a result read my own situation into his lyrics. I can only hope not. I mean yes, I haven’t made writing and recording music my life as I thought I would in my teens. There’s still time though. Despite all the distractions and troubles life has thrown at me, and despite my tiredness at the end of each day, I still feel that I have a lot to give. Granted, too much of my time is spent working, or time wasting on the internet, but don’t let that fool you. I’m still, what’s the word? No, not crazy. Surviving. That’ll do for now. It’ll have to.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Review Of ‘Muchacho’ By Phosphorescent Based Only On The Front Cover

Is it irresponsible to write an album review without having heard a single note from said album? Maybe. It would probably depend on the album. Can you use an album cover to penetrate deep into the very core of the music and somehow extract its essence? I believe in some instances you can. I believe the album Muchacho by Phosphorescent provides us with one such example. Take a look at that album cover. I mean really look at it. Truly it is repulsive. The head tipped back just right, fingers on the brim of the cowboy hat. Wasted smile, wasted beard. Half-naked women frolic on a bed in the background. What message is this cover trying to get across? Clearly this image was not chosen at random. Far from it. The image was chosen because it encapsulates in some way the spirit of the music. It provides clues that reveal how the music should be received.

So here’s how I think the author of the album wishes us to interpret the front cover. This album is a modern Americana creation. The songwriter of Phosphorescent wants us to see him as a drunken philosopher, passed out in the gutter but spewing out wisdom. He is a barroom poet, ever ready to dish up tales of heartbreak, loneliness, and excess. Part Bukowski, part Willie Nelson, and part Townes Van Zandt. Yet with a keen eye you can see beyond this approved interpretation and discern something else. You can see the rotten core of Americana and the banalities it trades in. You can all but peek into the masturbation fantasies of a million bearded dudes across America who feel that by fleeing their suburban roots and adopting a ready-made country dude-bro vibe they can approximate some kind of authenticity. Within the unchallenging, lazy observations of indie country that seldom stretch beyond bleary-eyed regret or wide-eyed (but ‘hard-earned’) wonder, the modern Americana dude can feel that they are partaking in the simple truths of life away from the hustle and bustle of the ‘rat race’. The guy in Phosphorescent is just a good ol’ boy, never meanin’ no harm.

Why should I listen to this music? What will it give me other than nausea? Why must we retread these retreads? Every picture tells a story and that front cover tells a pitiful one. The sad thing is more than one of these dreadfully posed pictures is now doing the rounds. For all I know there are dozens in the sleeve notes. Same wasted smile. Same fingertips on the cowboy hat. Same beard. Same naked women.

I’ve decided there’s no real need to actually listen to the music because the clichéd cover reveals everything. Safe, comforting images that titillate and excite only those listeners whose thinking process has been replaced by some country-dude false consciousness. Must we have another album with a back-story that involves heartache and getting away from it all in order to fill the empty spaces of the music? Is it wrong to review an album without having listened to the songs? Perhaps, but it’s much worse to revel in cozy banalities. Ask yourself which of the two activities makes you angrier and get back to me.

(This review originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Monday, February 17, 2014

Nationalism, 'Braveheart', and the Scottish Independence Debate

When asked for his opinion on Scottish independence in a recent Daily Record interview, Bobby Gillespie, lead singer with Primal Scream, stated:

“We can’t be nationalistic about it. Nationalism has never done it for me. It leads to fascism.”

Gillespie is seen by some poor souls as a political firebrand but his thinking in regards to nationalism is predictably thoughtless. More disappointing are the opinions of comedian Billy Connolly, who dismissed the Scottish Parliament as a “wee pretendy parliament” and went on to say:

“I hate nationalism. If you look at the history of nationalism, you will find the history of war and horror.”

To be fair to Connolly, he has since refused to have anything to do with the No campaign and publicly stated that he will happily endorse whatever decision Scottish voters decide to make. The main purpose in quoting him was to highlight a disturbingly commonplace view in regards to nationalism that exists in the UK. This view paints nationalism as a fascistic, anachronistic, and dangerous philosophy. The reason why is because nationalism is consistently equated with Hitler and the Nazi Party. All other instances of nationalism are forgotten and, without fail, the Nazi Party are wheeled out. What this viewpoint fails to do is separate the race-based nationalism of the Nazi Party from the modern civic nationalism of the SNP. What it also fails to do is recognise that more often than not nationalism is the end result of war and colonialism, not the cause.

The modern nation-state is a relatively young creation. In Europe, there is a tendency to confuse tribal groupings and early administrative regions with nation-states. The modern German nation came into existence in 1871, but people talk of Germany as if it has existed since time immemorial because of the existence of Germanic tribes and the Holy Roman Empire. Modern Italy was born in 1861. These modern nation-states came into being as a result of people joining together for the common cause of establishing sovereignty after suffering domination under a foreign overlord. Again and again nationalism was forged under the anvil of an outside threat. The great irony of the current Scottish independence debate is that, by scorning Scottish nationalism, voters are passively throwing their hat in with perhaps the most murderous and destructive nationalism in the history of the modern era: British nationalism.

When Winston Churchill said "It makes me sick when I hear the Secretary Of State say of India, 'She will do this,' and 'She will do that.' India is an abstraction.... India is no more a political personality than Europe. India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the Equator”, he failed to notice the great irony in his statement. The British Empire created Indian nationalism by attempting to subdue and rule the people in the geographical region known as India. Indians united against the British Raj. Irish nationalism was the result of British rule. America was born as an act of resistance against Britain. Nationalism has always been a bulwark against oppression. Is it any wonder that so many in Britain speak derisively of nationalism (unless it is the unspoken but always superior British kind)? Nationalism destroyed the British Empire. Nationalism broke up the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland. Nationalism is now threatening the very notion of the United Kingdom.

So when does nationalism become toxic? When it becomes race-based. The Germanic nationalism that flourished under Hitler was a perfect example of tribalism and race-based nationalism (and a culmination of centuries of European anti-semitism). The relationship between race-based nationalism and civic nationalism is as close as the relationship between a totalitarian state and a modern liberal democracy. Anyone using Stalinist Russia to dismiss any and all forms of government would rightfully be dismissed. Yet those who invoke Hitler at the mere mention of nationalism are given an audience. British nationalism, with its barely concealed white supremacy and history of oppression, war, and colonialism, is closer in spirit to Hitler than Scottish nationalism. The only reason the British Empire faltered was because oppressed people fought back. Britain did not recede out of some innate sense of decency and fair play; it was beaten back by rising tides of nationalism.

With that in mind, is Scottish nationalism race-based? Absolutely not. When Scottish author William McIlvanney gave a speech in 1992 before a crowd of Scottish nationalists he famously stated “Scottishness is not some pedigree lineage. This is a mongrel tradition”. The response was cheering and applause from the listeners -- hardly the Beer Hall Putsch. Being Scottish does not mean being Celtic. Yes, ancient Scotland was created by a uniting of Scots and Picts, but for a true picture of Scottish genetics you have to throw in a bit of Danish, some Norwegian, some Anglo-Saxon, and some Norman. For a more modern view, add a lot of Irish, some Italian, some Lithuanian, some Polish, some Jewish, some Pakistani, some Chinese, some Indian, some African, some Caribbean, and a lot of English. In truth, you are more likely to hear complaints about too many immigrants from Unionists rather than Scottish nationalists. These same Unionists claim that Scottish nationalism is anti-English, while at the same time denying that a sizable aspect of Scottish society is anti-Irish. Nobody would be so foolish as to claim that Scotland does not have problems with racism, but it is a fact that extremist parties like the UKIP have no foothold in Scotland, and any people that do support them are much more likely to be waving a Union Jack than a Saltire.

British nationalism is also dangerous because when it looks in the mirror it does not recognise its own reflection. Despite invading the vast majority of the globe, many Brits seem to think that British nationalism does not exist. There is a notion that British identity is merely an evolved point that all will reach when they outgrow such squalid notions as nationalism and race. Scots who speak of rejecting independence by rejecting Scottish nationalism clearly agree with such a notion, but what they fail to acknowledge is that choosing British nationalism means siding with a more powerful nationalism, siding with a nationalism that is built on an inherent sense of superiority, and siding with a nationalism which includes a lot more dangerous race-based thinking.

When Margaret Thatcher made her famous statement “There is no such thing as society” she was essentially saying that a people should not look to a government for help. Her philosophy was that government protected private property and the free market and everyone else was on their own. This same philosophy was contradicted by the power she wielded while Prime Minister. She wanted to wean Brits from welfare while, at the same time, using the power of government to intentionally put thousands out of a job. The influence, wealth, and property of the British aristocracy was protected. The privileges of the Royal Family remained in place. The poor had to make do. Her larger context was that the individual was the only true agent in society. Neighbourhoods, communities, counties, regions, and nations were merely historical accidents. While Conservatives endorsed this philosophy in principle, they did so draped in a Union Jack. Mutterings about the French and the Germans and the EU were made with the implication being that Britain was superior because it had moved beyond nationalism. Britain must be Great again by telling mainland Europe to mind its own business and let Brits run their own country. This viewpoint was not seen as dangerous nationalism. Yet, when the SNP makes gains in Scotland on a philosophy of civic nationalism, they are routinely compared to Nazis (and accused of being bullies).

The end of nationalism would be convenient for neo-liberal proponents of globalisation who wish to make every citizen of earth forget their communal and national ties and become wealth-seeking individuals. Communities and nations with a strong bond threaten the entire notion of globalisation. With these thoughts in mind, the tendency to equate Scottish nationalism with German nationalism of the Third Reich becomes more sinister. Scottish independence will apparently leave Scotland less protected from a military standpoint. So a philosophy of less militarism is analogous with Nazi Germany? The SNP supports a more open immigration policy, the exact opposite of Nazi Germany. Let us have no more talk of nationalism meaning fascism. It is an empty argument from people who do not even believe what they are saying. It would be an insult to compare Indian nationalism to Nazi Germany. Attempts to tar Scottish nationalists with the same brush should be met with contempt.

The other charge laid at the feet of nationalism is its anachronistic and emotive nature. Critics of Scottish independence constantly invoke Braveheart, that Hollywood travesty based on the life of Scottish folk hero William Wallace. It isn’t going too far to say that it is an obsession for many No supporters. Scottish (not British) nationalism is seen as not only highly fascistic but also childish and sentimental. The main problem with this argument is how completely and utterly false it is. The Yes campaign has appealed to voters on any number of issues, from democratic to economic ones, yet to many No supporters the Yes campaign is fueled by Braveheart-derived sentiments. This is nothing but a cheap ploy that seeks to undermine calls for real democratic maturity. It attempts to paint nationalism as a thing of the past instead of a modern development. The fact that Scotland was one of the earliest European nations to declare itself independent (after uniting against English invaders) should not fool anyone into thinking that nationalism is a despicable trait to be left behind. On the contrary, nationalism is a stage all modern nation-states must pass through.

Scottish nationalism fell by the wayside after Scotland came under the umbrella of the United Kingdom. The energies released by the Union with England in 1707 produced the Scottish Enlightenment, but soon after Scotland found itself bereft of a sense of culture. Walter Scott looked to the romance of the highlands in order to drape Scotland with tartan and, while this provided Scotland with an identity distinct from England, Scottish writers and artists after Sir Walter found themselves ignored or marginalised. Irish writer John Millington Synge wrote that one the weaknesses in the writings of Goethe was that he had “no national and intellectual mood to interpret”. This same criticism could be made of Scottish writing after the Scottish Enlightenment had become a memory. Celebrated British novels tended to be English, and it could be argued that Scotland did not produce a Joyce or a Yeats as no national mood existed. While Scottish businessmen used their British identity to get a leg up in the colonies, Scottish culture suffered under the Union. The Scottish people were British in a legal sense, but they could never be representative of Britain. Only the English could be truly British. Scotland has still not fully entered a mature phase of nationalism. It had marched proudly through the door and then promptly got lost as Britishness became a byword for Englishness and Scottishness sat dutifully on the sidelines. It is no coincidence Scottish writing started to regain much of its vitality in the early to mid-20th century as a national mood grew and Scottish identity slowly reconstructed itself.

Those who reject Scottish nationalism must accept that, in doing so, they endorse British nationalism. They are not rejecting nationalism. They are in fact pledging allegiance to one of the most divisive, destructive, and power hungry forms of nationalism ever set loose on the earth. To claim that British nationalism is a thing of the past is to ignore the rise of the UKIP, whose anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalist stance has more than a whiff of race-based nationalism. A strong post-Empire English/British national identity free from triumphalism has yet to materialise. In contrast, the Scottish nationalist agenda is free from race-based thinking. It has produced no calls for less immigration or for the defunding of multicultural programs. On the contrary, Scottish nationalism has an internationalist feel. At heart it is a call for civic nationalism, a demand for true democracy, and a chance for Scotland to break away from a two-party system which has nothing to lose by ignoring Scottish voters. Scottish nationalism has grown according to the desires of Scottish voters and, as such, its spirit is democratic. There are undoubtedly many credible reasons for voting No in September, but a dislike of nationalism is not one of them. As long as Scottish nationalism is viewed as childish or, worse, fascistic, then a fog of misunderstanding will drift through the independence debate. Don’t be fooled into thinking that a vote for Scottish independence is an act of atavistic desperation. The opposite is actually true. A Yes vote has the potential be the most radical, the most democratic, and the most vital vote that you have ever cast.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

An Axe for Judas: Bob Dylan and the Obsolescence of Pete Seeger

The recent passing of folk singer Pete Seeger provoked a sizable amount of reaction on the internet and beyond. The general consensus was that Pete Seeger was a man of substance, a man of integrity, a man willing to take a stand and to fight for what he believed in. What nobody wanted to mention was that, by the time he died, Pete Seeger was almost completely irrelevant. The reasons for his irrelevance can be traced back to the schism which erupted in 1965 when Bob Dylan abandoned folk music. Dylan’s decision to embrace rock music left folk looking like a puritan cult for the morally self-righteous. Folk music meant rules, rock music meant freedom. Pete Seeger remained on the side of folk and in doing so he was left behind by the emerging counter-culture and left looking like the spokesman for an age whose time had come and gone.

When Pete Seeger began his long career, American folk music was very much connected with political radicalism and civil rights. Seeger himself was a pacifist, a socialist, and a union supporter. All the strands of American political activism came together under the banner of folk music. Folk songs were the songs of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalised. Folk music had a strong moral voice which questioned and harried the American establishment while pushing for change and equality. By the early 1960s the folk music revival was in full swing and Seeger was an active voice in the movement. It was into this arena that Bob Dylan stepped. Initially, Dylan’s songwriting was in tune with folk music’s moral voice. Soon enough, however, Dylan began to tire of folk music and in 1965 he performed at the Newport Folk Festival with a full electric band. The legend states that Seeger, who was present for Dylan’s performance, made a quip about wanting to take an axe to the electric cables. Dylan was stung by Seeger’s criticisms. To make matters worse Dylan was called Judas by an angry fan when playing a show in England. The jibe was generally interpreted as an angry response from a folk purist who was frustrated by Dylan’s choice to play with a full electric band. 

Dylan’s decision to go electric, and the angry response from some folk fans, rendered the folk protest movement obsolete.. Suddenly folk purists were seen as behind the times and overtly traditional. Pete Seeger was almost overnight viewed as a dinosaur, a leftover from some unenlightened era where people were hung up about politics and race. The new individual that Dylan represented viewed such political shenanigans as a drag. It would be wrong to say that all political radicalism immediately disappeared. Clearly there were massive protests against Vietnam and it was not unusual for counter-culture figures to have run-ins with the police. Yet Dylan’s individualism gradually replaced political agitation. Suddenly it was about being yourself, finding yourself, and not being caged by any ideologies or societal constructs. While the blues was created as a result of white supremacy and manufactured exclusion and poverty, the new individual said that it wasn’t about race, that anyone could play the blues. The end result was blues music being dominated by middle-class white males. While country and folk was the product of poverty and was mostly played by the white working class, the new individual said that class didn’t matter, as long as you had soul. The end result was country and folk being dominated by middle-class white males. Staggeringly privileged individuals like Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt became legendary as America’s middle-class took on the mannerisms of the poor while liberating the music from any buzz kill associations with politics. The new individual sang about heartbreak, sadness, and problems with alcohol. The universalism of the topics showed that these individuals had transcended race and class and were singing songs for the ages. The fact that modern Americana music is dominated by white middle-class males should give us all pause for thought about what has actually been transcended.

Dylan stripped folk music of its radical roots and made it safe for the bourgeois by turning art into a Rorschach test. People could take whatever they wanted from Dylan songs. In this new world of art, politics had no place. Other than vague protestations about the whole damn system being corrupt, politics was too spiky, too defined, and too bothersome for the new individual. Falling back on American libertarian traditions, the new individual just wanted to be left alone to take whatever they wanted from the music they listened to. Pete Seeger had no place in the world of the new individual unless he was viewed as a big cuddly grandad who sang ‘Kumbaya’ beside the campfire. He can be admired from a certain distance, but get too close and you’ll start to notice that he was a committed socialist, and that kind of thinking gets people uncomfortable. The moment Dylan went electric and abandoned social protest for cryptic and absurd lyricism the world moved with him, leaving Pete Seeger on the sidelines looking like a remnant from some bygone age. Seeger carried on regardless and stayed productive and political up to his last days while Dylan’s newfound approach soon floundered. It became apparent that after the initial rush of freedom that Dylan felt after abandoning folk and going electric he really had nothing to say. Despite occasional flickers, Dylan’s lyricism has never scaled the heights of his early 1960’s work and nobody seems to mind. He is still treated like a genius and, worse still, his music is approached as if the lyrics have moral substance. Dylan and his fans see no problem with lamenting the pitfalls of modern life one minute and then appearing in an underwear commercial the next. His actions are shrugged off as if to question them is foolish. This is Bob Dylan. He can do whatever he wants. The new individual is answerable to no one.

Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger represented two very different approaches to life and art. When we chose Dylan over Seeger we opted for an eternal adolescence free from constraints, responsibilities, or commitments. We grounded our idea of individuality on bourgeois notions of self that demanded we forget any aspect of ourselves that might lead to tension or engagement. Race, class, gender, and sexuality were just labels, man, and if we wanted to be free we had to forget those things (of course the unspoken part was that affluent straight white males were already free and everyone else needed to catch up and evolve). We chose Dylan over Seeger and as such we got the neutered, depoliticised art that we deserved. The more obsolete Pete Seeger became, the safer it was to praise him. He came across as a warm and fuzzy grandparent, not a firebrand political radical. With the advent of his death, he can now be lionized for possessing qualities which are almost completely absent from folk, country, or bluegrass. Post 1965 Dylan gave us the vague, politically blank music that was demanded by middle-class suburbanites hell bent on defining individuality as something which lacked, rather than possessed, notable characteristics. The fact that many see Dylan as some kind of heir to Seeger rather than a break from the folk tradition that Seeger stayed loyal to shows how confused our understanding of folk music really is. Dylan used the moral force (and the melodies) of folk music to create his reputation only to abandon it when the movement he hitched a ride on demanded more from him than he was willing to give. Pete Seeger ended his days relatively obscure but defiantly unchanged. Dylan has become a highly paid car salesman. Seeger lost his relevance but kept his dignity. Dylan betrayed everything his early work stood for, yet in doing so he helped create the conditions which allowed him to escape censure. The new individual lives free from repercussions and we do Pete Seeger a disservice to imagine that what he believed in was in any way similar to what Dylan believes in.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Ignorant Fantasies | Race and Class Delusions From David Thomas

Whenever discussions about authenticity crop up, which they often do, the urge to debunk is strong. Artists claiming ‘street’ credibility are subject to scrutiny and ridicule. While this is a healthy approach in general (one should always be on the lookout for spurious claims of authenticity) it has led to the assumption that almost all great art is ultimately made by the middle-classes. David Thomas, lead singer of Pere Ubu, sums up this attitude neatly in an interview conducted by Simon Reynolds. In the interview, available in Reynolds’ book Totally Wired, Thomas makes the claim that all adventurous art is middle-class in origin.

"This is the strength of our upbringing. This is why all adventurous art is done by middle-class people. Because middle-class people don’t care. “I’m going to do what I want, because I can do something else better and make more money than this.” If you sit down and make a list of the people you consider to be adventurous in pop music, I’d bet you lots that the vast majority of them are middle-class."

When Reynolds mentions The Beatles, Thomas scoffs:

"Do you really think The Beatles were working-class? Really? The Beatles were not working-class."

Now, the last thing I want to do is talk about The Beatles. Yet I find it interesting that it is now an accepted ‘fact’ that The Beatles were middle-class. The proof of this claim seems to rest on the fact that, after his working-class parents abandoned him, a caring Aunt with middle-class aspirations brought John Lennon up in a relatively well-to-do Liverpool suburb. He did not attend private school. His education was no different from other working-class children. All the other Beatles came from stalwart working-class backgrounds. Ringo’s household was certainly the worst-off but, in regards to the other Beatles, working-class does not mean destitute. It means working people with no means of income other than selling their labour. Yet somehow, over the course of time, The Beatles became middle-class. This reeks of class appropriation and class prejudice. Apparently thousands of people cannot accept the fact that a group as inventive and adventurous as The Beatles were working-class. David Thomas repeats this illegitimate claim with no evidence. He believes it, other people believe it, and therefore it is the truth. Typical middle-class thinking.

It surely does not need pointing out that almost every adventurous musical innovation of the 20th Century came from working-class origins. The blues, jazz, country, rock’n'roll, soul, reggae, disco, r&b, hip-hop, techno, house; the list goes on. It would take a mixture of ignorance and arrogance on a monumental scale to appropriate all of these innovations for the middle-classes. David Thomas certainly fits this criteria. After claiming all adventurous art comes from the middle-classes, he then claims that only Americans are fit to play rock’n'roll, and people from other countries have no business playing it.

"Nobody would in their right mind argue that an English band could play African tribal music as well as African tribal people. So where do you get this idea that English people can play rock music – the folk music of America – in any authentic way?"

He then goes on to quote Russian music critic Artemis Trotsky who said:

"The most ordinary amateur garage band in America has more authenticity and fire and soul than the most adventurous band from England, because they’re playing the music of their blood."

Thomas endorses this claim by saying:

"In any bar in America you can find ordinary musicians playing rock music of such high quality that it puts to shame stuff from other countries. That’s because it’s in their blood."

This little fantasy ignores one very salient fact; the vast majority of white Americans in 1960 had no idea about America’s musical heritage because it was music made by African-Americans and working-class whites. There’s a reason the average bar in America in 1960 did not shake with rock music, the reason being that, even after the advent of Elvis, listening to music made by black people was still frowned upon. Suburban teens learned of America’s rich musical heritage from the writing credits on Rolling Stones’ albums, not because it was in their blood. If it had not been for The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Kinks and Them, all groups who worshiped black American musicians, then middle-class Americans would have remained ignorant of the music of their blood. It was a well-known fact that blues guitarists such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf would play to packed houses in Britain, be treated like royalty and have nervous young Brits hanging on their every word, and then return to segregated America and play to half-empty bar rooms.

The truth is, while British bands were playing Chuck Berry, embryonic American garage bands were cutting their chops on ‘Gloria’ by Them. In other words, rock music is a British creation that Americans subsequently copied. Bob Dylan named his fifth album Bringing It All Back Home in reference to the fact that British bands had shown Americans music from their own country that they didn’t know existed and now it was time for an American to take these influences back.

Black musicians were outcasts in their own country. They lived their lives on the sidelines instead of being treated like the musical innovators that they actually were. By claiming that rock music is authentic American music that only Americans are fit to play, David Thomas is reveling in unbearable ignorance. On the one hand, he casually appropriates the music of African-Americans and poor rural whites while on the other hand also claims ownership of this music on behalf of all Americans and disallows all non-Americans from participating. The actual music made by white people in the early 60s had almost no connection to the musical heritage America would soon discover. Thomas ignores the fact that the middle-classes scorned ‘race music’, ignores the political and cultural segregation that led to jazz and blues. He then claims that as a white middle-class male he has the right to pass judgment on non-American rock bands.

When reminded by Reynolds that there is really no such thing as American ‘blood’ and that America was and remains highly segregated Thomas makes perhaps his most startling claim of all. After Reynolds puts it to Thomas that America does not really have a ‘melting pot’, Thomas replies by saying:

"Yes, we do. Only recently, since people like Oprah Winfrey and the do-gooders have taken over, has it been less successfully melted."

In his greatest feat of arrogance, Thomas ignores the economic and social damage wrought by slavery, segregation and Jim Crow, and blames an African-American woman for making America a less integrated place! Only moronic middle-class thinking could leap to this kind of conclusion.

What proof does Thomas offer up of the connectedness of American music? Greil Marcus.

"Images are created – seminal things like ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. That image has possessed writers endlessly from the moment it was heard. I've written probably a dozen songs based on ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. Read Greil Marcus’s ‘Mystery Train’, it’s all about the passing on of communal images."

There you have it. Greil Marcus wrote about it in Mystery Train and it sure seems plausible so therefore it is undoubtedly historical fact. Marcus, ever determined to put a poetic, romantic spin on the music he writes about, has a habit of making dubious connections between songs that feel aesthetically pleasing but bear no resemblance to historical fact. Over-romanticising American history can lead a person to ignore what were very troubling realities. The 20s and 30s were not so much ‘Old Weird America’ but rather ‘Hellish Segregated Morally Repugnant Murderous Racist America’.

A black male living in the south in the 30s risked being lynched for even looking at a white woman in a way she or her husband found distasteful. Apparently, this was the ideal melting pot for America until Oprah Winfrey and the do-gooders came along. What David Thomas has done in this interview, and in his thinking, is to allow white, middle-class America to take ownership of images, music, and emotions that did not belong to them. Separated by race and class, the music of early 20th century America came out of poverty, out of prejudice, out of spirit-crushing realities faced on a day-to-day basis, realities that white middle-class Americans need never face.

Art belongs to no particular group or class, however, and the nature of culture means that Art becomes the property of all. Yet David Thomas, after appropriating music from out with his race and class, then condemns others for playing music that supposedly does not belong to them. I've read many interviews by musicians. Some show remarkable intelligence, some show a disappointing lack of wit. Never have I read an interview that has such ignorance, such stupidity, such thoughtless arrogance, as the one in Totally Wired with David Thomas. He insults the working-class by claiming they are all but incapable of making adventurous art (I’m sure Mark E. Smith would beg to differ), he insults African-Americans by appropriating their Art and claiming it for all Americans, he insults non-American rock bands, and he actually claims that an African-American woman is partly responsible for making America more segregated (this seems like a variation on the tired theme of ‘race problems would go away if we stopped talking about them’).

To be honest, I’d probably care more if Thomas weren't so irrelevant, if his ‘career’ didn't consist of two decent albums made decades ago. Nevertheless the interview contains enough moronic thinking, the kind that often passes for fact in America and elsewhere, that I feel it is my duty to bring others’ attention to it. The fantasy world that David Thomas inhabits reeks of privilege and conceit. Perhaps I expected a bit more intelligence, a bit more individuality, a bit more adventurousness to his thinking. Then again, he is a white middle-class American male. We can’t expect too much.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Monday, January 27, 2014

Bob Dylan – Another Self Portrait (1969-1971) The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 (Album Review)

Perhaps the most infamous moment in the documentary Dont Look Back is when Donovan performs ‘To Sing For You’ for a twitching Bob Dylan and his entourage. During Donovan’s sweet and simple song Dylan can hardly contain his conceit, blurting out “Hey, that’s a good song, man”, before eventually launching into ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’. The exchange highlighted Dylan’s maturity in comparison to Donovan’s wistful naivety, though to be fair to Donovan he was in fact, and remains, five years younger than Dylan. The songs seemed to exist in different worlds (though I do think the line “crying like a fire in the sun” has always struck me as something of a clunker), and the documentary has forever cemented Donovan’s reputation as pretender to Dylan’s throne, a mere boy whose art shrivels when placed next to the master’s creations. How ironic, then, that within four years Dylan would be struggling to write lyrics that came close to the quality of ‘To Sing For You’, and his fans and critics would go on to champion this struggle as some kind of artistic triumph.

We’ve all read too much about Dylan as it is. What nobody seems to mention, however, is that even before his legendary motorcycle crash, his artistry was in decline. Blonde On Blonde is without a doubt Dylan’s Sgt. Pepper: an overrated album that relies on a few heavy hitters but fails to meet the standards set by his previous releases. Take away ‘Visions Of Johanna’, ‘I Want You’, ‘Just Like A Woman’, and ‘4th Time Around’ and suddenly things look pretty bleak. Bland rewrites of earlier, better songs and functional blues workouts dominate the album. From a production and playing standpoint it sounds great, but the songs don’t match the sound. It’s around this time in Dylan’s life that facts become rather scarce.

As far as the music industry was concerned Dylan fell off the map for a while. He crashed his bike. He raised a family. He jammed with The Band. He goofed around. He finally returned in 1968 with John Wesley Harding, an almost perfect album filled with cryptic, Biblical ruminations. The last two songs, though, indicate that something happened during John Wesley Harding. Instead of the lyrical complexities and allusions of the previous 10 songs, closing numbers ‘Down Along The Cove’ and ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ sound light and carefree. They are also rather dire, from a lyrical perspective. Nothing too awful, just a lot of bland “moon in June” rhymes that indicate a lack of inspiration. I say something must have happened during the recording of the album because these last two songs were not anomalies but actually predict the Dylan of Nashville Skyline. It seems that by 1969 Bob Dylan had forgotten how to write Bob Dylan songs.

Nashville Skyline, as indicated, picks up where John Wesley Harding ended except Dylan can’t even produce 10 new songs. There’s a rerecording of an old number, a throwaway instrumental, and then eight actual songs. Here is a man who once sang “Darkness at the break of noon/Shadows even the silver spoon/The handmade blade, the child’s balloon/Eclipses both the sun and moon/To understand you know too soon/There is no sense in trying” except now he was singing things like “Peggy Day, stole my poor heart away/By golly, what more can I say/Love to spend the night with Peggy Day” and “Oh, the moon is shinin’ bright/Lighting everything in sight/But tonight no light will shine on me”. Critics scratched their heads and wondered if Dylan was making a political move by associating himself with white working-class music, and some have suggested that Dylan banged his head so hard in the motorcycle crash that he had to relearn how to write songs.

Whatever the reason, it’s apparent that Dylan was not the songwriter he once was. Despite this, Nashville Skyline has become a favourite album among many Dylan fans (with Blood On The Tracks being the most treasured). It appears to have functioned as some kind of Never Mind The Bollocks, discovered many years after the fact for white suburban American music fans who grew up on alternative music but were looking for somewhere else to go. After exploring Dylan’s ambitious and daunting earlier material, Nashville Skyline is something of a respite from greatness. Ultimately it makes for a pleasant listen, but the words lack wit or any kind of playfulness. Its popularity may rest on the fact that its easy platitudes seem within reach of the average, educated, American suburbanite who sees profundity in hackneyed observations and imagines that the mundanities Dylan sings about on Nashville Skyline represent some kind of simple truth. Never mind those brilliant lyrical displays of Highway 61 Revisited; give me the homespun crock of Nashville Skyline. I can sing like that. I can dress like that. I can be that. Yes, Nashville Skyline is Americana’s true beginning point. It just took a couple of decades before its impact began to be felt. One man’s inability to write as good as he once did sparked an entire movement for people who lacked the necessary ambition to create something groundbreaking.

Wait, this is supposed to be an album review, right? Excluding a couple of live tracks, a couple of Nashville Skyline outtakes, a leftover from The Basement Tapes, and a few extra curios, most of the material on Dylan’s new Bootleg Series collection stems from the sessions for Self Portrait and New Morning, the two albums which followed Nashville Skyline. At the time, Self Portrait was greeted with derision, as opposed to New Morning which was greeted with relief. Sure, New Morning wasn’t a classic, but it was better than Self Portrait. However, while New Morning remains relatively ignored to this day, Self Portrait has picked up a cult following, even though the initial reviews remain as true as ever. People love trash and culturally reviled items and as such Self Portrait has its champions.

The problem with Self Portrait is that it sounds like a mess. It sounds like it was thrown together with five minutes to spare. It also has almost no Bob Dylan songs on it, which makes the greatness of Another Self Portrait’s first disc all the more astounding. The slapdash of Self Portrait is gone and, instead, every song flows effortlessly into the next. The version of ‘Went To See The Gypsy’ which opens the set sounds suitably enigmatic, the lyrics a vast improvement from Nashville Skyline. The first disc works because it presents the songs from Self Portrait and New Morning as if they were from one gigantic session, so Dylan originals brush up against his many cover versions. We get a heartbreaking “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue’, followed by a rendition of Tom Paxton’s ‘Annie’s Going To Sing Her Song’ where Dylan captures the mixture of sadness and laughter perfectly, and then we’re treated to ‘Time Passes Slowly’ with George Harrison on guitar and backing vocals which blows the original version away. Almost everything works, and one suspects that, if the first disc in this collection had been the follow-up to Nashville Skyline, then Dylan would have sailed into the 70s with his reputation intact.

Disc Two doesn’t work quite as well. It opens with a dreary, piano and violin reading of ‘If Not For You’, a song that sums up everything wrong with this period of Dylan. Many champion this song’s unsophisticated message as if it captures some simple, eternal truth about love that Dylan’s earlier work managed to miss. “If not for you/Babe I couldn’t find the door/Couldn’t even see the floor”. Now, I love my wife, but I feel confident that if we had never met I would still be able to locate doors and floors with ease. Earlier Dylan numbers such as ‘Love Minus Zero / No Limit’, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’, and ‘ Mama, You Been On My Mind’ all capture the complexities of love in a far more convincing manner than ‘If Not For You’. There are no simple truths to be found in this song, only simple lies and easy platitudes that roll off the tongue without a second thought. If Donovan had played this song to Dylan on that fateful night he would have been laughed out of the room. The song was later covered by George Harrison and within a few short years both Harrison and Dylan had gone through messy divorces. One has to assume that after the divorces they were able to leave rooms without too much trouble.

The second disc feels more akin to the original Self Portrait in that it feels disjointed and uneven. There’s a pointless alternate version of Nashville Skyline highlight ‘Country Pie’, the only song on said album which has any humour or joy in the lyrics. The versions of ‘Went To See The Gypsy’ and ‘Time Passes Slowly’ are inferior to the ones heard on the first disc, with the reading of ‘Time Passes Slowly’ from the second disc sounding like Joe Cocker’s Beatles cover ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’. There are, however, still highlights to be found. ‘Copper Kettle’ without overdubs can stop you in your tracks, and ‘Sign On The Window’ with added strings stuns, even as it predicts the coming of Elton John. Despite its flaws, disc two is still better than the original Self Portrait. More care has been put into the track listing, and even the songs that don’t work at least sound like they all belong on the same album.

Another Self Portrait is better than it has any right to be. Dylan at this time was clearly in the midst of some kind of artistic crises. New Morning came out in 1970 and it would be 1974 before Dylan put out his next studio album, Planet Waves, and it was no classic either. Dylan was out of energy, out of inspiration, and out of ideas. He turned, as he often does, to traditional music to help him through this rough patch but Self Portrait sounded lazy and confused. Another Self Portrait corrects the past to a certain extent and allows a fair amount of enjoyment to be had from Dylan’s 1970 recording sessions. Yet if you come away from this release with a feeling that those years of ‘69 and ‘70 were actually golden years after all, then we have a problem.

The five albums Bob Dylan released from ‘63 to ‘65 represent the high point of his art. Given the complexity, the delivery, the wordplay, the hilarity, the agony, the sheer overflowing genius of these years, why would anyone pick something like Nashville Skyline as their favourite Bob Dylan album? Imagine, if you will, a world-famous chef known for her innovative creations. Her dishes have regularly turned the culinary world upside-down. Then, while depressed and uninspired, she hears word that she must prepare a large meal for some important people. Unable to think of anything, she knocks out a quick pasta dish with some plain pasta sauce. Nothing fancy. Great pasta, but ultimately it’s still just pasta. Imagine then if 40 years later people talked about that pasta meal like it was the highlight of her career, as if it were some kind of conscious choice, a statement about the nature of pasta and society. So it goes with these barren years for Dylan.

The recordings from Another Self Portrait are desperate, the work of a man not sure what to sing or how to sing it. That it often succeeds is a testament to Dylan’s survival instincts, not his genius . From day one Dylan has possessed the ability to stare down the world, to look it straight in the eye and talk complete bullshit. You shouldn’t steal melodies from old folk songs and new friends if you can’t walk down the street the next day with a mile-wide grin and a bullshit yarn to charm your victims. When Dylan roared, his genius was unquestioned. Since 1965 that roar has never been consistent. Sometimes it is barely a whimper. Yet when it does rise up you almost want to forgive him for all his missteps and failures. In 1969 that roar was receding, and Dylan was looking for a place to hide.

That some suburbanites and wannabe folkies have built a career on imitating genius in a fallow period says more about the aspirations of the average Americana dude than it does about Dylan himself. Dylan hid out till he was ready to stare down the world again, and it took a failing marriage to inspire his genius to come out of hiding. Another Self Portrait shows one of the places he hid. It can certainly be a great place to visit, but to wish to live there artistically would be a mistake. There are no simple truths here. There is just a millionaire recording artist with time on his hands, recording songs that he enjoys singing. If you view it as any more than that, then you’ve fallen for Dylan’s bullshit and the aura of greatness that surrounds him that demands we view his every move as some kind of clever ploy to fool the critics. It’s really just a man with nothing to say trying to make enough songs for an album. He was better than this before, and he was better than this afterwards, and that is the kind of simple truth that many Dylan fans have a hard time understanding.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)